Dialectical Argument Structure

As John Beer notes in his essay “The Dialectical Argument Structure” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, the dialectical argument structure is essentially a three-part structure.  It turns from thesis (one argumentative position) to antithesis (a counterpoint to the thesis) to a synthesis, which combines the two seemingly opposing views.  Below are supplemental poems and discussion.

Here are some additional poems that use this structure:

“As I Walked out One Evening,” by W. H. Auden

“Some Days,” by Billy Collins

“I cannot live with you…,” by Emily Dickinson

The synthesis in the final stanza of Dickinson’s poems is thrilling and devastating.  Not to be missed!

Here is a helpful analysis of Dickinson’s seductive but (perhaps) difficult poem.

“My Head,” by Russell Edson  Edson’s prose poem also is a good example of the Circular Structure.

“Cezanne,” by Michael Fried (in The Next Bend in the Road, p. 12).

“The Selvage,” by Linda Gregerson

“‘Nothing Lasts,'” by Jane Hirshfield (in Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poems, p. 42).

“Articulation: An Assay,” by Jane Hirshfield (in After: Poems, p. 14).  A fine use of the dialectical argument structure in which the thesis is returned to briefly in the penultimate stanza.  “Reflection” is the synthesis of active and inactive thought.

“Epithalamium,” by Nick Laird

“Little Father,” Li-Young Lee

“Words for Worry,” Li-Young Lee

“The Gallery,” by Andrew Marvell

“The Wars,” by Howard Moss

“When I Am Asked,” by Lisel Mueller

“The Optimist, the Pessimist, and the Other,” by Jack Myers

“Naming of Parts,” by Henry Reed

(Perhaps “Naming of Parts” is dialectical–though it may be a poem of negative dialectics (see below).)

“‘…What a Lovely Way You Have of Putting Things,'” by Mary Szybist (in Granted (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2003): 42).

“Love Poem with Toast,” by Miller Williams

“Sheet Music,” by Geoffrey Young (in Fickle Sonnets, p. 135)

And John Beer has his own kind of dialectical argument poem:

“Charles Bukowski,” by John Beer

John’s dialectical argument, of course, kind of fails, but intentionally, comically.  The poem starts out not only discussing universal order but also enacting it, discussing it in the dialectical argument’s orderly fashion.  But then, after mentioning the argument’s antithesis, its “other hand,” the speaker of the poem realizes that this poem may be less about Bukowski’s famously debauched lifestyle and more about realizing that such a lifestyle also is his own (that is, the speaker’s), as well.  Ultimate large-scale synthesis is given up for more important, and comically honest, self-understanding.

“A Sonnet,” by James Kenneth Stephen also makes comic use of the dialectical structure, recognizing how two very different kinds of poems meet, but do not meld, in the person on William Wordsworth.

“Moment,” by Jane Hirshfield employs the dialectical structure in an interesting way: the thesis and antithesis (“Some in that moment / panic, / some sigh with pleasure.”) arise from and then are again subsumed by a surrounding synthesis.

Also, check out:

“Personal Poem,” by Jessica Lowenthal

And Courtney Queeney’s “Back to the Body” (in Filibuster To Delay a Kiss (NY: Random House, 2007): 77).  A lovely, sexy use of the dialectical argument structure.

Here are some poems modeled on Queeney’s poem.


In “The Dialectical Argument Structure,” John Beer also discusses negative dialectics, poetry that suggests that, due to larger conflicts, no smooth dialectical resolution is possible.  Here is another example of that kind of poem:

“a small number,” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

And here is William Blake’s take on the dialectical argument, a take that allows for opposing thesis and antithesis, but makes no room for a connecting synthesis:

“The Clod and the Pebble,” by William Blake

The following poems also offer a thesis and an antithesis–or, as Stephen Dunn puts it here, mind’s “[d]rift and counterdrift”–but no unifying synthesis:

“You’re Beautiful,” by Simon Armitage  (Whether or not this poem has a unifying synthesis depends on how one reads that final line…)

“Look Around,” by Michael Fried (in The Next Bend in the Road, p. 67).

“Quartz Clock,” by Jane Hirshfield

“In Mind,” by Denise Levertov

“Beggars and Kings,” by W. S. Merwin

“The Web,” by W. S. Merwin (in The Carrier of Ladders, collected in The Second Four Books of Poems, pp. 221-2).

“Words,” by W. S. Merwin (in Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, collected in The Second Four Books of Poems, p. 265).

“Transcendentalist,” by Alan Shapiro (in Old War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008): 69-70).


Here is what Randall Jarrell, in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry” (in Georgia Review 50.4 (Winter 1996): 697-713), says about dialectical structure:

“…A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.  This unity is generated by the tension set up between strongly differing forces, by the struggle of opposites; it involves not static things, but changing processes; it is a unity that is arrived at through heterogeneity, not homogeneity.

“And this is not surprising.  We can find the roots of such organization in the organization of the physical world; in the organization of the biological world; and, better still, in the organization of perception and memory…  There is no static unity in a poem, no mechanical atomistic system with its fixed unchanging entities joined by its fixed eternal relationships, with its wholes that are merely the sums of independent parts; the poem is Becoming, change–and Being and the changeless are only a partial and misleading abstraction from it.

“…Views which emphasize all this, and the relations which they emphasize, are generally called dialectical….

“I was making a great many structural analyses of poems, and I was astonished (and rather embarrassed) to find so many of the best-organized poems dialectically organized.  In trying to understand why such an organization should be so common and so valuable, I did most of the theorizing you have been listening to.  I should like, now, to give a good many of these analyses of dialectical structure, and to recite a long list of poems organized in this way; but I have space only to remind you–I think a reminder will be enough–of a few such poems.

“If one goes to Yeats at random–takes, say, the first poem in each of his last five books, The Wild Swans at Coole, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, The Tower, The Winding Stair, and Last Poems and Plays–one will find each of these poems dialectically organized.  (As a matter of fact, the first half-dozen poems in The Winding Stair have such organizations.)  Here are a few others, a few among many: ‘A Dialogue Between Self and Soul,’ ‘Among School Children,’ ‘Death,’ ‘Blood and the Moon,’ ‘Byzantium,’ ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,’ ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War (Ancestral House),’ ‘On a Political Prisoner’–but let me chop off this list, and say shortly that it is his favorite method of organization.  Anyone can find dozens of examples of such organization in Blake or in Hopkins; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ the ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ and the ‘Ode to Melancholy’ are all dialectically organized; the two best of all graveyard poems–the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and the ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’–are, naturally enough, organized in this way.  Anyone interested in such organization can easily find dozens or hundreds of examples.”

3 responses

16 07 2009
Two (More) Great Essays on the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] particular patterns of turns in poems.  Stillinger, for example, discusses what is called here the dialectical argument structure, stating, “There are numerous ‘binary’ oppositions and conflicts, with […]

30 07 2009
See Jane Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] kinds of poetic structures (or patterns of turning in poems): Hirshfield has poems that employ the dialectical argument structure, the metaphor-to-meaning structure, the dream-to-waking structure, and a few […]

19 02 2012
Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem « Structure & Surprise

[…] The dialectical argument structure proved to be the most difficult of the structures we looked at during the workshop, in part because it is a three-part structure, and in part because it is not a structure that poets tend to use as often as others.  Because I limited the time on exercises, I tried to make the move from thesis to antithesis to synthesis as easy as possible in the exercise.  For this one, I handed out a copy of Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” and asked the participants to follow his “you vs. I” dialectic in their drafts.  Here are two wildly different takes on this exercise: […]

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